On a summer day in 1997, I came into the possession of a sheaf of old rice paper carefully folded in quarters and nestled within the pages of a notebook that had belonged to my mother. In it she had jotted down scattered impressions during a 1958 trip to visit family in Israel about a year after my father’s sudden death at age 47. When I unfolded the rice paper, I discovered a travel journal written in pencil 47 years earlier by my father on a train from Paris to Naples, Italy. As the train car rocked through the French countryside, my father would have pulled out some paper he always kept in his pocket and a pencil whittled into planes to sharpen the lead point, and started describing this part of his long, arduous journey that had begun with the death of his own father at a very early age.
At that time, he lived in a small third floor apartment at 16 Brzozowa Street in Cracow with his mother and younger brother, and when he was old enough, he was apprenticed in his family’s furrier trade in order to help them. He grew into a friendly, popular young fellow and one of the leaders in the youth cadre of the Bund, Tsukunft, in his hometown. At 29, now a handsome, charismatic man, he was thrown to the winds by the war. He was not unique in this unraveling of a life. He and others like him, managing to escape in time, left behind their parents and siblings, their homes and possessions, their work, pastimes and romances. He escaped the fate of the sixty-five thousand Jews who stayed in Cracow and were exterminated. The day before he fled, he was part of a living community. The next, he and those others like him were being hounded, chased, murdered if caught, alone in the world if not.
My mother and father, who did not yet know each other in 1939, had each escaped to Russia when the Germans invaded Poland. They met after the war in Zakopane, a spa and resort town in southern Poland at the base of the Tatras Mountains that was turned into a post-war refuge for orphans and returning Polish citizens. After some time there, and to satisfy my father’s desire to go home, they spent an unhappy year back in Cracow.
That year was enough to help my parents decide that the pogroms and blood soaked killing fields of Poland were not for the living. They made their way to France, where they stayed for two years, my mother studying to become a teacher and working as a seamstress, and my father working as a furrier. My mother was pregnant and my father was already 40 when their opportunity for emigration finally came. Having survived the war, they were now refugees and were considered DP’s despite their time in France. As such, they were allowed to board a ship of DP passengers that would be leaving Naples for Canada. This explains the circuitous route they took to North America from Paris in the northwest of France through Rome and to the DP camp in Naples where they were to board the Neptune, hoping, like all the other refugees, to find a permanent haven somewhere.
I knew virtually nothing about their journey when I first laid eyes on the pages my mother had secreted inside her notebook. It is possible she never intended for me to find them or thought of them as anything but her own keepsake. But both the paper and the penciled script had been perfectly preserved, and the very act of touching my father by handling the living pages he wrote on was fetishistic and totemic. I knew I was going to commit one day to the project of reading his mercifully neat and legible handwriting, and get to know him now, as an adult.
To do so, however, would require more effort and work than I was sure I could manage because the journal was in Yiddish. Though Yiddish was my mother tongue, by the time the journal fell into my hands, the language was cold on my lips, if not in my heart.
My parents’ story, and mine, is interesting not for any unique quality it possesses – though every story has that – but for its sameness, for how it retraces almost exactly the steps of our forebears, the bildung process of earlier travelers, the pull and push of language, culture and the individual Jew. And though similar tales can be told by most first generation children of immigrants, not all their parents were Jews coming after the Holocaust. Ours were not simply immigrants. They were refugees, and refugees are unlike immigrants looking for a better life. Refugees come out of destruction. What differentiates them is the sense of rescue, and this sense lasts so long as it isn’t thwarted.
My parents’ first home in Canada, then, was a small rented room in an apartment belonging to the Falks, another, less green but not much more established immigrant couple, which lends credence to the story that I spent the greater part of my newborn life, when not attached to my mother’s breast or out being sunned in the crisp Northern air, sleeping in a bureau drawer like a larva in a cocoon. When I outgrew the drawer, my parents made up my bed each night by pushing two armchairs together, seat to threadbare seat, and covering the pallet with a little sheet.
This was not a rare beginning for a child of refugees. It was part of the already familiar established and well-oiled immigrant infra-structure – those who’d already settled in offered lodging to those who just got off the boat. The rest was up to the greenhorns.
My parents worked hard and their lives were not easy, but they were able in due course to move me out of that makeshift sleeping arrangement on Van Horne into a bed in our own small rented apartment on Fairmount. My father went into partnership with one of those already-established greenhorns, another furrier like him, and when I was old enough to go to nursery school, my mother became a Jewish school teacher in the Yiddishist and Left-leaning Y.L. Peretz Shule on Duluth. This second salary allowed them to move into the upstairs of a duplex down the street on Waverly, where I finally got my own bedroom.
We also had a separate dining room on Waverly, where some of the loudest and most divisive proponents of socialism and Yiddishism gathered in the evenings to have coffee and a little schnaps. They argued and laughed, and filled the house with sound and cigarette smoke. I’d already gone to bed on most of these evenings, and they’d inevitably wake me up, but I was always comforted by the familiarity of the people’s voices, the language they spoke and the rise-and-fall of their resounding laughter and low murmurs, the loud punctuations of insistent declarations and the silent pauses between new points that stirred them up again. And all was accompanied by phrases of song to ease the tension or underline an idea or close up gaps in the conversation. Breaking into song was a habit they’d brought with them from Europe, a remnant of the Hasidic tradition most of them grew up in or knew that was further cultivated in the political and ideological movements they’d been part of. In this regrouped society of refugees and immigrants the custom was at its best in the countryside, where the families went on vacation en masse. The adults and children took long walks together on the dirt roads, children running ahead, adults strolling behind, singing songs in Yiddish. In the apartment on Waverly, the singing stitched together the large patches of discussion that more often than not seemed a lot like arguments. This, too, was part of the legacy from pre-war Europe, from Jewish history in its entirety, actually. The old adage that says “Put two Jews together in one room and you’ll get three opinions” is euphemistic. Put two Jews together around one idea and they will never agree. Each will have to develop an antithesis to the other’s thesis, and this will evolve into a dispute. Yet whatever went on among these comrades, there was never a question about their fundamental common values and their appreciation of the country that had rescued them and given them shelter.
These people were Bundists, whether actual members or supporters. As such, they upheld the Bundist ethos of Jewish cultural preservation and simultaneous integration into the host society, of equality and secular Yiddishist culture. Following the lead of the Jewish Haskalah that had earlier in the century prepared the cultural infrastructure for the rise of modern Jewish nationalism, the Bund played a major role in turning Yiddish, repeatedly identified with “the uneducated masses, with women, with the disenfranchised of traditional Jewish society, and … the object of overt rejection from medieval times and onward,” into a valued medium of national-cultural autonomy. It went further still by gradually turning the means into an end, the medium into the message, making Yiddish the language not only of the rebellion of the working class but also of the newly coined, if not entirely newly forged national socialist ethic of doikayt (‘hereness’). The Bund’s grass roots political work, for its part, stimulated Yiddish literacy within the working class, which subsequently expanded and developed Yiddish in the prolific production of pamphlets, newspapers, literature, poetry, songs and theater. Yiddish libraries, literary readings and discussion events abounded. There arose a serious literary criticism in Yiddish. The Bund established the first modern Yiddish schools in Russia and Poland, including adult education. These schools, structured and run according to the Bund’s democratic, socialist and secularist principles, were pedagogically sophisticated, requiring and thus instigating a rapid development in Yiddish of a scientific language to cover a wide range of subjects and fields.
My parents and their friends were an integral part of this history and brought the Bundist principles with them when they left the old country. Unfortunately, they’d also learned the hard way that counting on the surrounding society and the wider culture to accept the Jews, whether in brotherhood as workers or respectfully as part of a mosaic of nationalities, was worse than frivolous. Yet somehow they maintained an admirable optimism and lived their lives, and raised their children, according to their truth.
Our Montreal Jewish community was large and vibrant, alive with the cultural accoutrements that had been developed back in Europe. It was a tightly knit community, with a strong Yiddishist bent. On principle, the parents all spoke Yiddish at home with their children, who spoke Yiddish even to one another. We’d learn the language of the new country quickly and easily enough, and so we did once we entered nursery school. Yiddish, in fact the entire culture, needed to be preserved, rescued from the death sentence of the Holocaust and the ensuing forced exile.
Though our segment of the community was made up mostly of immigrants from Poland and Russia, it was varied and heterogeneous. Among my parents’ friends and acquaintances were seamstresses and poetesses, furriers and doctors, carpenters and teachers. Men and women who came from poverty and those who left all their fine china and furs to the Nazis were bound together by shared experience and a sense of kinship. There were Yiddish accents of all kinds, from the broad Galicianer to the refined Litvak. All were active in some way in the continuation and furthering of Yiddish culture.
Waverly was where I learned about diversity beyond this group, and about how neighbors make for adversity, not harmony. The Catholic French Canadians, or Quebecois, who lived on the street saw the Jews in “their” neighborhood as interlopers and Christ killers. Their anti-Semitism was unthinking and unexamined. It was as much a part of their heritage as going to church and dancing jigs and eating pea soup. I had a silly argument with the boy next door one day during which he ran upstairs to his mother and wrongfully accused me of hitting him. She appeared by the low fence separating our walkways and yelled at me with gusto, calling me une petite sale Juive (‘a dirty little Jew’). She then came menacingly around to our side of the fence and dragged me upstairs to my mother, demanding she force me to apologize to her son, to whom I’d done nothing more than he’d done to me. My mother took my side after asking me a few pertinent questions, but made me apologize just the same – for fighting. I remember feeling sullied and unjustly accused, but my mother had made it clear that she believed me and so I also felt supported. It was the two of us with our bit of disingenuous contrition against the alien neighbors. Though the Catholics were appeased, the Jews had won.
There were also the religious Jews on Waverly, who would have nothing to do with us nor we with them. They’d be something to look at in their costumes and garb, something to comment on – their beautiful fur-trimmed hats on Saturday, and their white satin garments on holidays. For their part, the religious girls would make remarks to me on Shabbes from across the street that I should be wearing white stockings and a fine dress. I had to ask my parents for clarification. I was often confused as to why we weren’t more like them if we were Jewish, and why not pro-Israel, the official attitude in my school. I know today how difficult it must have been for my parents to field those questions and navigate between their feelings about religion and Israel on the one hand, and their desire to raise me with an unequivocal Jewish identity on the other.
Despite the non-religious, non-Zionist character of my upbringing, I was raised Jewish – consciously, meaningfully, all-encompassingly Jewish. It was a matter of essence and substance, without a God or a State. My parents spoke to me only in Yiddish; read and told me only Yiddish stories; sang Yiddish songs with me; sent me to The Jewish People’s School, a Jewish day school. We celebrated the Jewish holidays in a secular fashion. My parents read The Forverts, the leading Yiddish newspaper. All our friends were Jewish, both my parents’ and mine. My mother was a Yiddish teacher. Talk was about Jewish issues. Later, when I was 8, I started going to Camp Hemshekh (so named for the continuation – hemshekh — of the Bundist ideology), a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, and continued to go there till I was 17. During the first few years at camp, my mother was the camp’s Yiddish instructor. And after my father died, we moved from Montreal to New York, a new country entirely, but it was into the Amalgamated, a basically Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx.
For a few years after my father’s death and before the move, my mother began to take in boarders, just as the Falks had taken in my parents. One after another, couples slept in what used to be my parents’ bedroom while my mother slept on the pull-out couch in the living room, walked out in their pajamas and slippers, sat at our table and ate, and mumbled to each other, mainly in Polish. They were new immigrants needing temporary housing, just like my parents had needed and received from strangers when they first arrived in Canada. Knowing about our predicament, I’d have to assume that the Falks had probably been as poor and needy as my mother was when she let these complete strangers live in our house.
My mother became the sole breadwinner in our diminished household, with a modest salary from her job at the Y.L Peretz Shule and the rent money from our boarders. Clearly, this was not the best life for a 44 year old widow with a 7 year old child. With the help of the community, whose network reached far and wide, a match was made for her by a friend of my mother’s in Montreal and the friend of a widower with a son from New York.
We relocated from Montreal to The Amalgamated when I was nine. The Amalgamated Cooperative Apartment House, as it was originally called, was founded as a democratically managed cooperative in the mid-1920s by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union. Its aim was to build and offer decent, affordable apartments to its primarily Jewish immigrant members in the needle trades. By the time we got there in 1960, the Amalgamated was an upwardly mobile lower middle-class cooperative sprawl of many building complexes that housed a drop of Irish, a splash of Italian, and an overwhelming majority of Jewish tenants. Our apartment was in Building Number One (or the First Building, as we knew it), only the first of several apartment building complexes, each of which had in its center a large courtyard, or “garden,” its physical focus.
Lovely and spacious as the courtyard was, our 3-room apartment was cramped for a family of virtual strangers, and whenever I could, weather permitting, I’d escape to the courtyard steps, where many of the other Amalgamated kids would also be gathering. Under the steady gaze of my stepfather, who watched vigilantly from a window of our home, I’d sit with my friends, yet again children of parents like mine – immigrants from post-WWII Eastern Europe. There were other children in the building complex, but we formed the hard core of the courtyard steps. Older now, I began to see that the majority of our parents’ generation was scarred in some way. At the mercy of their own fears, they unthinkingly enveloped us, imprisoning us inside a distinctive kind of over-protection born of their trauma.
We could venture down those steps to the street and almost anywhere in the neighborhood, but everywhere else was, according to our parents, the Danger Zone. Among the other dangers lurking beyond the parameters of the Amalgamated – getting raped on the subway south of our Broadway line stop on 231st street or the Moshulu Parkway stop on the Lexington line, mugged in any park but the visible playground in our neighborhood Van Cortlandt Park, plied with drugs in any coffee house or – God forbid – jazz club, and accosted on any street – was the apparently equivalent danger of the non-Jewish friend. Of course, we were bound to have non-Jewish acquaintances. After all, despite the overwhelming Jewish majority, there were some in the neighborhood, more at school, many in the shops we frequented. Some of them, the parents would admit, were even nice people. But not as friends. They had different morals, different habits. And friends of the opposite sex were all potentially marriage partners, which just wouldn’t do. This world view emanated somehow from our secular, liberal, universalist parents. Workers of the world, unite! Alle menschn zeinen brider. Just keep away from my daughter.
In grammar school, there was only one non-Jew, an Irish boy in a class of about 30 pupils. In my junior high class, there were two African American pupils, an Asian, and a few other non-Jews. The Bronx High School of Science was more diverse, though predominately Jewish, too. Even in this more multicultural environment, my closest friends were Jewish. But in the Creative Writing elective in my senior year, I met a boy who lived on the Upper East Side in Manhattan – light years away in all things from my milieu and comfort zone. We became close and began meeting after school, something I’d rarely done before with school friends. Mostly, I kept my two lives separate – Jewish, Bund- and camp-related, home spun on one side, school on the other. But with this boy, things changed. I brought him home a couple of times, and went down alone on the sly to Manhattan once or twice as well – a real excursion for me then – to his apartment overlooking the City. These visits were stopped short when I was warned not to become “too friendly” with him. The possibility that I might marry a goy was to be avoided at all costs, including my budding friendship with him. I put up a fight, ranted at their hypocrisy, scoffed at the leap they made for me from high school friendship to marriage, railed at the limitations they were forcing on me. But just as this incident changed how I saw my parents and the world they’d brought me up in, their dismissal of my friend’s companionship also changed the nature of my feelings for him, which became fraught and unclear. It is entirely possible that my parents’ reaction to this friendship was the trigger for my disillusionment with, and eventual departure from, the fold. In any case, by the end of high school he and I went our separate ways to different colleges in different countries. I once stopped off to meet him in his Amherst college cafeteria on my way back to Montreal and McGill at the end of Christmas break, but that was our last encounter.
Aside from the schools I went to in New York that were 95% Jewish, I also went to Jewish school all the way up through Jewish Teachers’ Seminary. The study of Yiddish allowed for my forays into Manhattan, sanctioned and encouraged for this purpose by my parents. Mitl shul (‘middle school’) took us downtown to 14th Street every Sunday. By “us” I mean a bunch of kids who were forced, persuaded or supported in their decision to keep on spending their precious free time studying Yiddish language, literature, history, culture, and a smidgen of bible. And a good time it was. At least it was on the rowdy subway rides back and forth, where we brazenly, and for sure annoyingly, sang Yiddish songs while hanging on to the poles and grab handles as the car swayed and lurched. It was, when we traipsed to the local Pizza joint during our inevitably extended break. It was, when we walked through the park on Moshulu Parkway to the downtown subway station, and especially on our way back home, licking the Italian ices we bought from the vendor on the corner. The same was true for those of us who graduated Mitl shul and took the same subway to the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary on Park Avenue and 59th Street. Now we actually sat in restaurants and coffee houses during our breaks, feeling like grownups and true New Yorkers.
The essence of my Jewishness continued to be bolstered by the substance that filled my life. In our neighborhood, Yiddish was heard everywhere. Our activities were in Jewish centers. We commemorated Jewish holidays, ceremonies, remembrance days and other events en masse – the whole community. Pesach was at the Waldorf. The yearly April 19th Warsaw Ghetto Memorial day was at the shtein (‘the stone’ – a granite plaque, which became the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza in Riverside Park). We celebrated Chanukah and Tu B’Shvat in Jewish school, Shavues and Succos in our friend’s backyard – the only private house among us, Rosh HaShana exchanging greeting cards, weddings and bar mitzvahs in rented halls.
I loved my friends and was therefore happy enough to take part in our Jewish pageants and ceremonies, commemorations and functions, to sing our Jewish songs and act in our Jewish plays. One year, we put on Itzik Manger’s The Purim Shpiel in the National Yiddish Theater – Folksbiene, which was great fun. I was Queen Esther and basked in being a singing actress in an actual theater for a couple of performances. Above all, I loved going to our Jewish camp, Camp Hemshekh, “our summer home,” as we sang every evening at our kharvershaft farzamlung (‘comradeship gathering ‘) around the flagpole. Freedom from the city, from school and from our parents called to and awaited us. I spent my adolescence ticking off the days on my calendar during the year to the 2 summer months when I felt liberated along with my peers. I’d never have gone to Hemshekh had it not been for the Yiddish component. Not only was it ideologically in keeping with my parents’ world view – secular, socialist and Yiddishist, but the fact that my mother could work there as a Yiddish teacher for the first 2 years made it possible for her to afford to sign me up. And between summers at camp, I belonged to the JSY (Jewish Socialist Youth), the youth cadre of the Bund, where many of the campers who lived in New York would gather for occasional meetings.
So, just as I was the coincidental agent of my parents’ project to rescue Yiddish, Yiddish also rescued me. Ironically, the language of the older generation, of the Old World and of the galut mentality (a concept I learned about once I came to Israel referring pejoratively to the diaspora) was the means by which I gained a modicum of freedom and the opportunity to see and even partake, however minimally, in the outside, cosmopolitan, New World. Once I was let out if only for a few hours a week, I would not return willingly.
In our Jewish enclave in the Bronx, we were all inexorably tied together, tied to the Old World insofar as our lives were defined by Yiddish culture. By the traditions, the language and the literature. By the history, the genealogy, the Holocaust. By anti-Semitism, the call to excellence, the adoration for America. By the humor, the wit, the sharpness of tongue. By the snobbishness, the exclusivity, the judgementalism. By the fear of assimilation and the desire to integrate. By the alien accent and the pride in citizenship. By the insistence on difference and the undertone of foreignness. And as such, we were tied to a sinking ship. Sadly, Yiddish proved also to be a burden for me, the unasked and unwitting preserver and perpetuator of a language, bearing the mark of a new brand of displaced person, someone who was and would always be distinctive. I was expected to carry this burden with pride and dignity, and I sometimes did. But the more the community insisted on our uniqueness, the tighter the rope began to feel to me. And we were always roped in, some of us more than others pulled in when we started to stray, and always under watchful eyes. Always the same ingredients were thrown into the stew. Always the same taste, the same air which finally turned fetid and thin.
What in the early years was rescue – that of the refugees and survivors and their desire to preserve what had almost been entirely wiped out, which was also their own past – had with time and the entering into young adulthood of the first generation of American offspring, become a suffocating and limiting world from which I, personally, intended to break free as soon as I could. Mostly I was eager to break free from the ghetto neighborhood and mentality, and now, counting the days to camp took a back seat to counting the months to when I could strike out on my own road. One month shy of 18, I packed my bags and left through the only acceptable door open to me. I left for college and never returned, except as a visitor.
I shucked off all signs of the life I was leaving – layer by layer, removed it all – and didn’t look back. Nothing was left, not a thing of my identity. After a last minute fight over money, I even declared my financial independence from my parents (though they were paying for college, of course), and spoke to them only when they called me (or when I needed something from them, naturally). I maintained virtually no contact with any of my friends in New York when I moved back to Montreal to go to McGill University.
In Montreal, my “real” life began, and it was strange. It was another world there, nothing like my life in New York, and totally different from the childhood home I’d remembered. First, I had to accustom myself to a more confining prison than I’d known at home. My parents had entrusted me into the white dowager hands of the Royal Victoria College for Women, the women-only dorms of McGill University. That was their stipulation for allowing me to leave New York instead of staying at home and attending City College. The dorms had strict curfews, and there was an intimidating warden who made sure you kept them. Unused to sharing my space, I had put in for a single room, and got a small, narrow, grey cell. All the furniture was made of grey metal, and along one side of the already narrow room was a long grey metal surface that was to serve as table, vanity where it passed under a wall mirror, and desk. There was barely enough depth to this surface for one textbook. Bathrooms and showers were shared. The common room downstairs was our living room. Visitors were to wait there and be announced to the inmates. I was always embarrassed when my friends had to go through this procedure, and I tried my best to avoid it.
I had gone from one homogenous environment to another. The differences were in color, culture and language. Also, that I had felt at home in the previous one and distinctly foreign in the new one, even though I’d returned to my native land. The girls in the dorm were mostly blond-and-blue-eyed, out-of-town Canadians with upturned noses and creamy skin. They giggled and laughed and shared their makeup and nattered at each other in flat, crisp Canadian English syllables. Whether it was true or not, they all seemed to know one another, and I knew no one. From a large, family-like group upbringing, I landed solitary in the Cold North.
Though that wasn’t entirely the case. My boyfriend from camp and a childhood playmate who’d also been at camp were there. Their parents were friends of my parents. Their friends had become my friends over recent years. They were all Jewish, though at this point, it didn’t matter to any of us anymore. What mattered was that I wasn’t really alone once I got outside of the dorm. I spent more time out of it than in anyway. After a semester of wasting my parents’ money and several visits to the warden, I convinced everyone that we’d all be better off if I rented the spare room in my boyfriend’s brother’s apartment.
In due course, I joined the counterculture. My parents (all three), who had also been part of a counterculture in the past, rebelling against the shtetl, religiosity and oppression, would not have recognized it in its contemporary manifestation, but it spoke to me for the not unfamiliar values and ideology it propounded as well as for its social appeal. The counterculture was a conglomeration of young people who wanted to, and believed that together they could, change the world. It followed a certain curve, and in Montreal had a particular local flavor and dimension. It started as a hippie culture, mixing the sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n roll esprit with that of peace and love. It then joined in with the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Feminist movement, and Civil Rights. It took a different road when the Separatist Movement fired up and blended with the workers’ struggle and the battle between socialism and communism of various schools of thought. That was when drugs, the commune life-style and free love met up with political theory sessions, theater workshops, demonstrations and mass union meetings to form one big froth.
Academically, I was a very uncommitted university student. I used – or squandered—my time following the zeitgeist, most actively as part of a living theater group which morphed into a political street theater commune that attached itself to each liberation movement in turn. It all came to a screeching halt with the October 1970 War Measures Act, leaving only the drug scene, the holding cell for all the burnt out and decaying movements. I was eons away from the Amalgamated and the insulated community I’d grown up in. Unfortunately, the good had been wrenched away with the bad. The rich heritage my parents’ generation managed to save from extermination and tried to pass on to us – had a hard time penetrating the resistance I put up.
It was fashionable in the Montreal of my college years for Leftists of a certain leaning who were also Jewish to minimize, or hide, or even denounce their Jewishness. For one thing, the Quebecois, whose Separatist Movement was the focal point of the Left, were Catholic, with a long history of staunch anti-Semitism. The rationale for the radical Jewish Left was that in order to gain their trust in us, we had to downplay our identity as Jews. The more radical Jewish Leftists disclaimed the importance of their own Jewish roots. Religion and the radical Left didn’t go together, and the communist ethic was by far the more significant element in our lives. One friend proudly declared that his father, a Belgian Jew who’d been interned in Auschwitz during the war and survived, had decided not to have him circumcised. He wore his intact foreskin like a badge of honor.
And then there was the Palestinian issue which, in the early 70’s, was just starting to win over the sentiments of the Left. It became increasingly urgent for any right-minded Leftist to denounce the Israeli Occupation and support, nay fight for, the Palestinian claim to the land. The more left the Leftist, the more land was included. The far-Left was anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and, by identification and implication, anti-Jewish. This blurring of boundaries goes on to the present day and most likely will do so in the future, to the detriment of all. At the time, though, after the Six Day War, when the territories in question were first conquered by Israel, the fury was fresh. We had several debates over this in our theater group in which I stated repeatedly if somewhat meekly that I was Jewish and yet not a Zionist, citing my own upbringing and the fact that my parents – and the whole community of Bundists – were proud anti-Zionists. But that wasn’t good enough for the Movement. It had more pressing matters to contend with than the distinction between “good” and “bad” Jews. You had to be pro-Palestinian, not just anti-Zionist. You had to be pro-Palestinian enough to be able to say, and mean (paraphrasing JFK, who said something akin but didn’t really mean it), “I am a Palestinian.”
The impulse to hide one’s Jewishness became all but imperative and fighting their cause a bit schizoid. It was almost an out of body experience to have Shabbes dinner with my boyfriend’s family and take part in French Quebecois workers’ actions against the Anglo-affiliated Jewish factory bosses the next day. It’s not as though I would have spoken Yiddish to them had they been philo-Semites, but the added layer of dissociation from who I was not only drew me farther away from Yiddish culture; it also made me look at it with no small amount of disdain myself. Repeatedly knocking against all these bumpers, as part of the Movement which was also my social milieu, my world for a few years at the time, I shed the little that was left of my Jewishness.
In truth, I found the French Canadians somewhat mistrustful of my engagement in their demand for recognition of their separate identity. Even as a revolutionary in Quebec, I was identifiably Anglophone. And if I thought I’d transcended my parochial Jewishness in this new environment, I was on several occasions again called une sale Juive by the very people I was fighting for. I remained an ‘other’ trying to identify with another ‘other’.
Yiddish was by now a forgotten language, almost a forgotten sound. Despite the large and vibrant Jewish community in Montreal in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, I had virtually no contact with them, and aside from the gradually sparser Friday night visits to my boyfriend’s parents, neither spoke nor heard any more Yiddish. Even in the parents’ home, I found myself speaking English with them, as my Yiddish had become so much less fluent over the years. I could barely express myself beyond some bare and insignificant sentences, and it was easier not to try.
Just as my Jewishness was replaced by a Canadian, pro-Quebecois, political theater, counterculture persona, my second language became Quebecois French, completely ousting Yiddish, my mother tongue. I was by far more American than Canadian when I returned to Montreal in my late teens, had had no prior dealing with French Canadians except for quotidian encounters and the indelible run in with my childhood neighbor, did not particularly like the flat, didactic, hit-and-run nature of agit-prop street theater, and never completely fit the mold of the hippie or the radical feminist. Yet all this was who and what I ostensibly was for four years at the expense of all that had been familiar to me. Granted, mine was already a patchwork identity before I ever returned to my native soil. The Jewish legacy did not pass over me. Like my parents before me, and their parents in their host countries, and Jewish communities for centuries prior to them, I was an outsider in my own home. And like many before me, I chucked the known for the unknown, the insular for the worldly, my mammeh loshen for the language of my detester.
In the end, starting in the college dorms, I had basically exchanged parochial and sectarian enclaves. Apparently, any struggle of one closely defined group against another will end the way it began. Intolerance, exclusion, discrimination and oppression simply change sides. When the Separatists did gain power, French became the official language of all of Quebec, and Catholicism, though more secular than in the past, gained ascendancy as the predominately Protestant Anglos and the Jews left en masse, taking with them a large number of national and international businesses, to more favorable climes. An oppressed people must achieve freedom and self-determination, to be sure, but when the power structure is just reversed, there is no final justice. At the time, however, and until 1976 when the Parti Quebecois first formed the Provincial government, the Separatists were still only a liberation movement, and I was caught up in the negation of my culture for the sake of their struggle.
Crossing over from old worldliness to the new, from parochial to cosmopolitan was not strictly my generation’s purview. Finding the shtetl stifling and confining, many of our parents’ generation (and in some cases, that of our grandparents) tried to escape the narrow confines of the Jewish community and some abandoned their Yiddish culture. Among these were enlightened Jews who had been exposed to Russian culture and Marxism, and became involved in learning and then organizing study circles in economics, history, and political philosophy in the hopes of establishing a mass, not specifically Jewish, movement.
A word to the wise: Even when you are remaking yourself, keep some small part of the old on which to hang your hat, your being, some sense of who you are. A sense of where you belong to which you may return.
It wasn’t a simple road back, yet all the friends I had back then who renounced their Jewishness as so much ballast or hogwash, returned to it in some significant way. I have long lost touch with them so I don’t know their motives, but I do know the fact. Some 40 years later, my brith-less friend, for example, wrote a novel whose form is based on the Talmud, where a central sacred text is surrounded by the more than thousand years of commentaries by Jewish scholars and sages.
One day, my stepfather arrived from New York. He’d been sent as an emissary to bundle me up and take me back home. I don’t know how much my parents knew of what I was involved in up in Montreal, but they knew it wasn’t college. When my stepfather flew up to see me, I’d dropped out of school. I’d also broken up with my boyfriend. As far as my parents were concerned – and they weren’t entirely wrong – I was slipping way off track, and almost off their radar. My stepfather spoke with me about all this and I was only as forthcoming as I had to be. When he finally got down to suggesting I come back to New York, my answer was that I had to stay and work for the Separatists. Aside from being rather dismissively incredulous about the level of my importance to this cause, he asked quite seriously why, if I was so intent on fighting for a people, it wasn’t for my own. Now it was I who was incredulous. What did my people need? What were they struggling for except more expensive property or a second car? My people were doing very well and had come to stand for things I’d shunned.
“What about Israel?” he suddenly threw in. My stepfather whole-heartedly stood by the Bundist anti-Zionist stance, but in his role as my savior, he grabbed at the last straw. In fact, just a few years earlier in 1967, when 19 year old Israel had just been attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, I was as eager as just about all my friends to go and help out. But I was a teenager myself, and was not allowed to. My parents may have been overprotective then, but now they were eager that I go. For one thing, the Bundist ideology had actually shifted after the Six Day War once it was clear that the State of Israel was a given and was going to survive, whether they liked the concept of a Jewish State or not. But more urgently, they would now do whatever it took to retrieve me from the clutches of my life in Montreal.
My stepfather didn’t have the clout to make me come back, but he’d planted a seed in fertile ground that would sprout a year later.
In the summer of 1972, I returned to New York to get a job for several weeks and save enough money for a ticket to Europe, an eight week trip to France I’d planned with my Montreal flatmate. It was clear from the start that I wouldn’t make enough in time, and I accepted my parents’ willing offer to pay for part of the plane fare if after two weeks in France I’d fly to Israel and visit with my families for the remainder of my vacation. I agreed, though as it happened, I almost didn’t get to Israel. I stretched out my time in France as long as I possibly could till I had to say a weepy farewell to my companion on our last day together, and boarded an El Al plane for Tel Aviv. With only the pack on my back, my new plan was to go to my Jerusalem family for one week and to my Haifa family for the one remaining.
Had I gone to Israel first, I’d never have made it to France. On the bus ride from the airport to Jerusalem, I had an epiphanous experience that changed everything. It clinched a decision that would rescue me yet again, this time from what at a distance really did look like a downward spiral in Montreal. Looking out through the windshield from the front seat where I sat so the driver could tell me where to get off, I saw a cat scurry safely across the road ahead of the bus. My immediate reaction, hardly a thought but one that struck me like an ontological truth, was that here, in Israel, even that cat was Jewish! From that moment, despite my being the daughter of Bundists, raised and schooled in the ideology of doikayt, a first generation Canadian-American, a renegade from the insular parochialism of the Jewish community, I felt I was home. Or maybe it was because of those very things. Whatever else I was or had tried to be, whether uncritically embracing or actively disowning, I was still deeply and consciously Jewish.
Both my Israeli families were inviting and warm, but it was at my aunt Sima’s house in Haifa that the actuality of my staying in Israel took shape. Among other changes, though I could speak with my cousin in English and with his parents in my paltry Yiddish, they spoke to me only in Hebrew. I remember being astounded, and even angry, that in the presence of all these Jews, I never heard a word of Yiddish. My knowledge of the country was very scant at the time. I knew next to nothing about the Ashkenazi-Sepharadi divide, and less about the Israeli Arabs except that they added a certain exotic flavor. To me, a Jewish country ought to have resounded in Yiddish. But I soon learned about the Zionist project and how, yet again, Yiddish had become a language to revile – this time as a sign of the galut, associated with the little Jew, unenlightened and weak, subject to the mercy of any given ruling government and its populace, and ostensibly going meekly to the slaughter. Jewishness in Israel took on a different character from the Yidishkayt I’d known.
Yiddish was the language of only a part, albeit at the time the majority, of Israelis, and the need for a common language contained within the semi-religious notion of Return to the homeland resulted in the choice of Hebrew as the national language. The ethos of the country was young, vibrant and strong, independent and militaristic. Nonetheless, it spoke of peace and had hopes for an end to war. It was also the home of an ancient people, weary from a history of persecution, self-sufficient in ideology if not entirely so in fact. In the new Israel, anything that gave off a whiff of the old, the vulnerable or the needy, was anathema. Yiddish had about it all that.
For all these reasons, Yiddish was a banished and virtually banned language. Hebrew reigned – a new Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Israeli-born, Salt-of-the-Earth Sabra, a new human being. Not so much mensch as individual. Not so much Jewish as Israeli. In fact, modern Hebrew is also known in some linguistic circles as “Israeli”. Some Yiddish did find its way into this new language in single words and phrases, in first names and nicknames, often in lilt and even in syntax. Yiddish also permeated into Arabic as Jews and Arabs rubbed shoulders at markets, at work and in the streets. To this very day the Arab ragmen drive around in their vehicle, blaring through the megaphone on the roof, “Alte zakhn, alte zakhn!” (‘Old things! Old things!’) So Yiddish was strong enough to remain for some and become for others part of human communication despite being ostracized, and yet part of our heritage was being cut away at the dotted line and cast aside. Though the dotted line would turn out to be artificial, the quick strangle and slow demise of Yiddish in Israel was very real.
My Haifa aunt arranged for me to spend a month on a kibbutz in the care of family friends, and I fell in love. It was like home, camp, and the Garden of Eden in one. The love and inclusion of family, the society and my people; the values and lifestyle of my upbringing and my belief system; the years of struggle turned into a blissful and clear state of homecoming vanquished me. Living in Israel became my cause, and all the more so after another war in 1973; after the victory of the Likkud government in 1977 and the rise of capitalism; after discovering the overbearing powers of the Orthodox in the daily lives of the people, religious or not; after the ascent of Gush Emunim and the religious-messianic Israeli nationalists; after the gradual understanding of the significance of the Occupation, had tempered my initial euphoria.
Within a decade of coming to the country, I finished the degree I’d started at McGill, became an English teacher, married into the kibbutz, and gave birth to my first child. In the delivery room, I muttered some words in Yiddish, a kind of benediction, a sign of the link to the past of which she had just become the future. The repertoire of lullabies I sang to her as she grew included one or two in Yiddish whose words I only partially remembered. Mostly I spoke with her in English, but when it came time to start telling her bedtime stories in English, I had none. My own childhood had been filled entirely with Yiddish stories and songs. I’d never been read Dr. Seuss or Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlotte’s Web or Madeline. The best I could muster was some Mother Goose I’d listened to on colorful 45 records, and Disney stories I started reading on my own after seeing the movies. There had been a short-lived transition into Nancy Drew and then, still a young teen, I was directed by my parents towards the Russian classics. What was I supposed to offer my own children? Once they began coming home from nursery school and talking about the trees, flowers, birds and insects they’d learned about that day, I learned from them – in Hebrew – what these were. As a city dweller, I didn’t know the names for them in English, let alone Yiddish. And though an entire zoological and botanical lexicon was established in Yiddish, most notably by Zalman Reisn and later Mordekhe Schaechter, I don’t remember learning too much of this vocabulary. Yiddish could play no part in my children’s lives.
What I did remember were the songs my mother used to sing to me when I was a little girl, the cantor’s music my father used to listen to, the songs from our early group vacations, from camp, and from the holidays we celebrated year after year. They still move me to tears each time I hear them and I want to sing along. I don’t find this music amusing, or sentimental, or quaint, as many do. To me, it is both heart-warming and wrenching as it harks back to something whole and meaningful that is gone. The Yiddish that I knew as an adult, however much of it remained, was from the time I spoke it in Montreal before we moved to New York. I can still recite that ditty about a rambunctious little girl in her dangerously white dress that my mother made me perform at the Cracow Society when I was five. My Yiddish, to be sure, was from an innocent time. My connection to it, both visceral and ingrained.
Still, there was Yisrael in the kibbutz factory, Yankele in the general store, and Yossi at school with whom I could banter a very little bit once in a while in Yiddish. This kept the language from disappearing altogether, but it was more as a decomposed relic in the dusty attic than anything alive and breathing. The Yiddish I could muster had by this time eroded down to a few words and phrases in a Galicianier accent that I exaggerated so Yankele, himself a Galicianer, could get a kick out of it. We could feel like lantsman (‘countrymen’) though I was Canadian-born and he had made aliyah from Poland just a few years before my mother had run away to Russia from her home in Buczacz and the invading Germans.
One year, my mother came to visit us on the kibbutz and brought with her a copy of Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, published a few years earlier (1977). At the time vaguely appreciated, it was my mother’s stubborn message to me, the Jews’ message from time immemorial – to never forget. I shelved the dictionary above my desk among other reference books and English teaching material in what turned out to be a moldy alcove by the bathroom. I discovered the mold when I took the books down on the occasion of my son’s birth, not in any symbolic gesture but because we were turning the alcove into his sleeping area. The pages of the dictionary were grey at the fore edge and warped. I was tempted to trash it but some sense of impropriety made me wipe the pages down with a mild bleach solution and dry it in the sun. We moved our reference books to a long shelf high above the doorway leading out to the back lawn, and when it was dry, the dictionary joined them, and was forgotten.
About a decade later, I went back to the University of Haifa to begin my doctoral studies in English literature. Among the people I ran into on occasion in the department was a tall, dark, handsome professor with whom I had taken a seminar on Emily Dickinson for my MA. When Professor Prager discovered that I knew Yiddish, he invariably greeted me with “Vos makhstu?” (‘How are you?’) in an impeccable Litvak accent, to which I would respond with a favorite phrase of my Haifa uncle’s, “Alts in ordinung. Meh shluft in di skarpetkes” (‘Everything is fine. We sleep in our socks’) in pure Galicianer. This phrase of my uncle’s had stuck to me like chicken fat, and it stood in for any other by-now feeble attempts to actually speak in Yiddish.
On one such occasion, we stopped for a little longer and chatted about what each of us was up to. I reported on my by now three kids and my progress in academia. He showed pleasant interest, and then told me about his new project, the latest in a string of several related to Yiddish, including the founding of the Yiddish Studies Program at the university. The project was called Mendele, a newsletter/e-journal of Yiddish studies. Prager’s Mendele was a rescue mission, hence the title.
He mentioned his connection with YIVO, which triggered off in me a happy spate of name-dropping – board member and volunteer archivist, Shloyme Krystal, my stepfather; Hannah Fryshdorf, researcher and assistant executive director, my aunt; project archivist and librarian Ettie Goldwasser, my cousin; Bolek Ellenbogen, Moyshe Kligsberg, and music archivist, Chana Mlotek, family friends – and my own past with Yiddish. That in turn spawned questions about my background, and off I went on my Bundist upbringing. Prager showed intimate knowledge about it all, even about our Camp Hemshekh, which hardly anybody had ever heard of, unlike the bigger and better funded Boiberik and Kinder Ring or the Zionist Habonim.
It felt a little wrong using these credentials when I had actually drifted away, nay pulled away from them as so much excess weight. Here I was claiming to be part of a world I’d dismissed as too constraining. But talking to Prager did something to that attitude. Far enough away, it seems, it became easier, even agreeable, to hark back to this part of my past – a sizeable part, though never really chosen for its substance, or appreciated for its essence when I was young and it was the skin I lived in.
As in so many other coincidences and happenstances along the way since the day I left hearth and home, this chance meeting with Len Prager in the hallowed halls of the University’s English Department joined in a hidden but gathering momentum that culminated in my finally opening my mother’s notebook, which my stepfather, unaware of the treasure lying within, had set aside for me while cleaning out his dead wife’s personal belongings and placed in my hands during a summer’s visit at his apartment. The notebook then sat for years in a desk drawer in my house on the kibbutz, until one day, after such an encounter with Len, I went home and took it out. I opened it up and discovered inside it the folded pages of my father’s travel journal. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from my cousin Ettie with a few pictures someone had brought in to YIVO of my father as a youth Bund activist in Poland. I suddenly had the urge to share what was left of my father with his grandchildren, who knew him only through my sparse stories and sparser photos. That meant translation, since my children knew no Yiddish to speak of.
Where my stepfather could not convince me in a Montreal hotel room to return to the fold, my father, who’d been alive for only seven years of my life, led the way back home. All it would take now would be long, hard work, winding through languages, histories and emotions, to decode, understand and translate my father’s journal. I pulled down the dictionary my mother had brought me several decades earlier, and began to read.
The journal led me back not only to my long dead father, not only to my mother, who provided me with this accidental heirloom, and who gave me life, love and a language, my mammeh loshn, but to the loshn itself, to Yiddish. And Yiddish provided an entrance into an Escher-like world in which I felt myself moving backwards and forwards at one and the same time, delving into lost and unknown worlds, uncovering silenced and hidden ones, opening vistas of opportunities present and future.
News of my translation work on the journal reached the culture director on the kibbutz. Always on the lookout for fresh activities for the kibbutz members, he approached me with the idea of starting a Yiddish class. I balked. I felt ill equipped. My Yiddish wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have the time, still being a full time English lecturer. Who would want to learn Yiddish, anyway? But the director had been approached by several kibbutzniks who reflected, as it turned out, a growing tide in the country within a certain slice of the population. Over twenty people signed up for the class. Among them were people in their 60s and 70s who had either spoken Yiddish as children or remembered the “secret” language of their parents or grandparents. There were young people in their 20s and 30s who were interested in the language as part of their heritage. There was a woman who worked with an elderly lady in the kibbutz old age home who thought knowing Yiddish would help her communicate and understand her charge. For almost everyone, Yiddish had a direct emotional impact. Each lesson was laced with gasps and sighs and tears and goose bumps as people suddenly remembered a word or expression out of their or the collective past, or a scene with their old bubbeh and zeideh, or a whiff of old world cooking, or an embrace the last time they saw their mother and father. And the same happened to me. I was surprised by all of it, at every lesson – how Yiddish was still alive for each and every one of us: young, old, immigrant, native born, Holocaust survivor, veteran kibbutznik, salt of the earth Sabra or Diaspora Jew.
Way led on to way. Two of my students mentioned the class to friends of theirs off the kibbutz. These friends in turn asked me to come teach Yiddish where they worked – one at a community center, the other at a college for adult education. A woman in the college class, where registration had to be cut off at 50 eager people, thought it a good idea to inquire at the municipal library if they’d be interested in providing shelf space for all the Yiddish books students kept offering me from the legacy of family and family friends. The library agreed, and invited me to offer a course there. There were other communities that approached me, but I had to turn them down. Some of the classes didn’t last for more than a year or two past the initial reunion with the language. Learning or improving a language demands consistent work and dedication, and most of these people were not interested in that kind of commitment to studying. They wanted the experience, the encounter with the world of Yiddish, not homework or self-motivated practice. Those who were more serious followed me from one course to the next, and I tailored my expectations to suit the population attending. A group of more advanced students formed a reading circle and asked me to lead it. This group started with poems, short plays and short stories, and eventually tackled a full length novel. The members began haltingly, and then started coming to the sessions having read far ahead of their assignments. All Yiddish needs is care and it opens up like a redolent rose to reveal its delightful offerings.
It is in the nature of those who elect departure to renounce and perhaps denounce what is being left behind. How else to separate? How else to let go of the known and the familiar, even if unpalatable, and head out into the distance and the future? How else to engage in the process of bildung? It is the way of the world, certainly the way of generations. My parents’ generation in Eastern Europe broke with the traditional generation from which it emerged, which was still immersed in religion, and small trade and crafts. They crept out of the shtetl and ghetto mentality into internationalism and world culture. They took up the causes of socialism, communism and Zionism, which had been formulated in the century before their own maturation, and they put into action on a large scale the theories of their forebears.
My mother left her Hassidic parents in Buczacz for the city of Lemberg to continue her high school education against her father’s will. But even before she left their home, she’d left their way of life, first by secretly joining a Zionist group (Poalei Zion) and then, in her older brother’s footsteps, the Communists. My father, a working boy in a single parent family, couldn’t leave his widowed mother behind but did join the socialist Bund at a young age (as the picture sent by my cousin attested). For my father, the war forced escape, and for both my parents it extended the distance and the time away from home. It also erased any thoughts of return, the telos of departure, the final pull of bildung – the assumption of one’s place, newly acquired and well-earned through trials, travails and experience, in the society that provided the original background for mature development.
My parents escaped and took only Yiddish with them. This they passed on to me, virtually devoid of context and history except what they, as secular culturists, deemed worthy. They rebuilt their lives with an entire network of secular Yiddishist cultural content – theater, literature, education, summer camp, political activism, historical and research organizations, community life. This was my legacy. And I, in turn, escaped and left it behind. These hasty farewells, theirs as well as mine, created gaps and sometimes chasms that turned out to be particularly challenging when I returned to claim my place in the world of Yiddish.
Ironically, the first thing I was thankful for in my return to Yiddish was the forty years or so of total immersion in Hebrew since I moved to Israel. My father’s journal was written in a Yiddish that reflected his cultural and political background – heavily laced with Polish determinants, an orthography punctuated with errors based on a Mideastern Cracow dialect, and light on the Hebrew component. The attempt to strip Yiddish of its Hebrew element was a priority for Jewish communists and the Bund’s Yiddishist, anti-Zionist and non-religious ideology that saw in Hebrew the primitive, biblical language of the rabbis and the wealthy while Yiddish was the language of the masses upon which could be built the aspirations of modern Jewish Diaspora Nationalism.
This bleaching of the language reached an absurd height in the late 1920s-early 1930s in the Soviet Union when the presses, under the supervision of the Evsektsii, punished Hebrew by targeting its orthography and shifting it to a Yiddish one, removing all final-form consonants, inserting vowel letters where Hebrew uses diacritics, and changing certain letters in originally Hebrew words to reflect their Yiddish pronunciation.
My father’s Yiddish was, for the most part, not that radical. It was more a product of YIVO’s standardized orthography, part of a political stance claiming Judaism as a nationality based on language and “an intellectual rather than a religious tradition”. For this rich language to matter, it had to be able to stand up to the scrutiny of a standardized written language, given the variety in its spoken form. This made my father’s journal less difficult for me to read than it might otherwise have been, having been educated in this standard Yiddish.
It was when I started reading the Yiddish classics – Mendele, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz – that I wondered how I was ever able to understand them without my present knowledge of Hebrew – and indeed whether I ever had. As opposed to the socialist/communist trend of expunging Hebrew entirely, including from where it was woven into Yiddish, these authors were the product of the Haskalah for which Hebrew was the national language, to be modernized by the Jewish intelligentsia and studied in all cultured homes along with the local European language. My Hebrew enriched my understanding of Yiddish literature enormously.
I also very much needed knowledge of the abandoned past in order to understand the constant referencing of givens in the cultural discourse within the Yiddish texts I was reading. I had never been conversant in the past of the shtetl, where religion played a huge part; the past of the language and all the influences that made it different everywhere it was spoken and written; the Bible, the Talmud, scriptures and commentaries, streams and strains of Jewish philosophy, mysticism and teachings – all this was never part of my life and wouldn’t necessarily have intrigued me if it didn’t inform the literature. I found a Yiddish dictionary of Hebrew terms which helped a lot as far as loshn koydesh was concerned, that is, the Hebrew within Yiddish specifically connected to the religious tradition. I started by finding out the definitions of words and phrases and then went to investigate their source and context. The pages of the texts I was reading were filled with scotch-taped notes and stapled addenda of information I’d found. My curiosity was piqued at every turn and I started reading books and articles on subjects ranging from the Bal Shem Tov and the Kabbalists to Reb Nahman of Brastlav, from the shtetl to Birobidzhan, from the history of the Yiddish language to a study of dialects. I listened to lectures on YouTube as well as original recorded audios and videos of talks on and in Yiddish. And all the while, I read Yiddish daily, aloud, reaccustoming my mouth to the formation and sound of the language that was my mother tongue.
My return to Yiddish seems arbitrary, a matter of serendipitous events that led from one to another with minimal conscious input on my part. It might appear that occasions and possibilities dropped into my lap and I simply arranged them neatly like the pleats of a skirt. But conditions on the ground were ripe. My personal experience has been echoed in a renewed interest in Yiddish in Israel and elsewhere. In Israel, a country that is multicultural without finally being comprehensive, ethnic divides never seem to be sutured. Indeed, today there is palpable insistence on ethnic divides within which lies the already germinated seed of Yiddish as Ashkenazi heritage. Reclaiming one’s past, one’s culture, one’s history, rescuing it from out of the cholent pan and resuscitating it need not be anything but healthy and rewarding. We can take our cue from a new trend in linguistics, a natural absorption of the ecological movement to preserve the environment and its resources into the revival of dying languages. If in our now multicultural as opposed to blended social format we may reclaim and proudly share ethnic music, ethnic food and ethnic clothes, why not our ethnic language?
People think Yiddish is on its last legs, taking its last breath, that if the young aren’t learning it, Yiddish will disappear with the older folks now re-embracing it. I think differently. Yiddish is always already dying. Then it is resurrected. Which is why prognoses are foolish, unfounded even when based on present profiles. Yiddish has been pronounced dead or worthy of dying many times – by German-Jewish proponents of the Haskalah, by Zionist Hebreophiles, by Russian-Jewish nationalists; after the rise of Stalin, the murder of six million mostly Yiddish speaking Jews in the Holocaust, the inception of the State of Israel, the massive immigration to the Americas of Jews ready to be stirred into the melting pot and assimilated. Yiddish was no longer necessary, it was said, an apt critique for a pragmatic language. Yiddish was the language of the shtetl, of the simple folk, of the unenlightened, and needed to be discarded, a proper diagnosis during times of development and aspiration. Yiddish is ugly, jargon, a mongrel, a schnorer and can’t be expected to serve aesthetic exigencies, a fitting pronouncement by artists striving for expression among the European nations. But instead of disappearing, it rises again, evolves into new forms with renewed impetus.
This is because people also fight for Yiddish. From Mendele, who despised it and then became its premier literary figure, through Peretz, who wrote poetry in Yiddish about its totally prosaic nature and then proceeded to foster a whole generation of young, artistically daring writers in Yiddish; Jewish youth organizations whose challenge was to keep it alive in the new countries, alongside survivors and immigrants who wrote of their experiences in Yiddish; universities, colleges, seminaries and other institutions that evolved courses and entire departments for its study; communities that dedicated themselves to maintaining Yiddish as a living language. The largest of these is the Orthodox community. The Orthodox are isolated in self-protected ghettos in their archaic garb, their medieval and pre-Enlightenment manner and life-style, their customs and traditions – our customs and traditions. They have not accepted the challenge of creating what Jennifer Young calls “an overlapping space” that would allow for “a creative dynamism” between their communities and the surrounding culture. Their main goal in the face of this culture is to protect themselves from it, from assimilation. It is the only community that has a school system where Yiddish is the language of instruction. Yet theirs is an unrefined, uncultured, unliterary, shtetl Yiddish. A Yiddish used for discussing the holy books and scriptures to be sure, and their daily activity of course, from the banalities of the grocery store to the rarified spheres of hi-tech. They keep Yiddish alive, but Yiddish is more than that, broader and deeper than that.
For this reason, the Orthodox are mentioned off-handedly, as if, being an insular sector, it doesn’t really count. But this community is large and is sustaining the one thousand year old language into a future whose character is anyone’s guess. Youtube is full of men in shtreymls (the fur hat worn by men on Shabbes and festive occasions) and payes (sidelocks) singing Yiddish songs from old folk tunes to rap. New internet shows, like Lipa Shmeltzer’s videos, the web sitcom “Yidlife Crisis,” cooking shows and How-to clips by Jews in black skullcaps and shaytls (the wig traditionally worn by married Orthodox Jewish women) are made by and for a growing religious (and non-religious) cohort. There are budding authors rising from among the synagogues and shtibls (a place used for communal Jewish prayer) who might replenish a dwindling Yiddish literature, like the author who goes by the pseudonym Katle Kanye and the Yiddish blog-writer Natirlich. These facts may not be my cup of tea, being a secularist humanist feminist socialist ex-hippie former revolutionary, but as far as Yiddish is concerned, they are part of its vibrant presence and hence a bridge to its future.
In fact, the farther I go with my own work and study, the more people engaged in Yiddish projects I meet. My tunnel vision may be magnifying the Yiddish community and making it look like a world when in reality it might just be a clique, a group of familiars, that travels the circuit together. But though there are only a small number of prominent people out there, “the builders and kultur-tuers (cultural workers) of modern Yiddish culture have been blithely continuing on with their work”.
From the outside looking at what I actually do, it may seem variously like a foolhardy mission or a noble one, like opportunism (more positively called “seizing the moment”) or trailblazing. How it is seen is more a matter of the beholder than the doer. For me, really, it is all these, and something else entirely.
Teaching Yiddish today is definitely a foolhardy mission. Yiddish is, indeed, irrelevant. I say this not to set up an argument, not as a devil’s advocate, but in acknowledgement of an oft repeated and unarguable fact. Yet it is also a noble endeavor. A language that served its speakers well for over 1000 years deserves enough respect to keep it alive. Yiddish speakers were the major segment of an entire nation, and the language is what in part defined them and helped maintain their identity. It is a language that permeated the life of the European Jewish community and was imbued with the essence of that community. Reviled and loved in turn, and sometimes at the same time, Yiddish expressed the needs, the longings, the miseries, the celebrations, the world views and the way of thinking of the Ashkenazi Jews. It was “jargon” and it was mamme loshn.
Yiddish was a grating, guttural, underworld secret code. It was an ugly language in the eyes of those who preferred Hebrew to be the language our people would finally adopt. Yiddish has always been the language of necessity, of managing in the next place we wound up having to go to save ourselves – always changing to suit the language of our reluctant hosts, a “mongrel,” if you will, a “fusion,” if you must. Yiddish always would have to do, until the people started to read, became educated, left their boorish ways, left their religious enslavement, left their ghettos of the mind, accepted European culture, modernity, socialism, communism, became Russian, French, American. It was always temporary, and so was always on the way out. For 1000 years.
But it was also the sophisticated, mellifluous language of literature. After Sholem Abramovitch (Mendele), Sholem Rabinovitch (Shalom Aleichem) and prinicipally Peretz came a deluge of writers and their poetry, prose, dramas and criticism. Yiddish became a culture of its own. A raison d’être beyond the stop-gap, flea-bitten, unloved language it had been. It grew to such stature in the 20th century that its texts could vie with the best of European belle lettres of the time. It was the language of home and the old life but also of youth and the new one, the language of yearning for the past but also of hope for a brighter future. Folk songs from Mama’s arms and Papa’s knee were sung with nostalgia, but new songs were woven into political discussions around tables over coffee and cigarettes or on youth movement hikes in the mountains. Everything possible was done to this language. Hebrew had left for Palestine, and had saved itself. And then proceeded to eliminate the last vestiges of its sister language where it could. Yiddish was burnt down to ash along with millions of its writers, readers and story tellers. Yiddish was being murdered in the pogroms, wars and executions.
And yet, as the language of a culture and the expression of that culture, Yiddish remains alive. The myriad books and articles, the prose and the poetry, the stories and the songs are almost all still there. The question is whether the language will become silent and its outpourings muted. It should be a matter of pride as well as defiance to ensure this doesn’t happen. It is our duty, in fact, to keep Yiddish alive, in study if not in active usage, in interest if not in output. We can fully engage in the greater cultures we live in and still maintain our own. We no longer have to turn our backs on the “language of the galut” to “return from exile” and build the State of Israel. We don’t have to pretend, as our forebears did even before the Holocaust, that we are too modern to know that old language. On the contrary, we, as the repositories of that old language, having rebelled, having dropped it like a hot potato, having joined the larger community, having become cosmopolitan, worldly, free, can now embrace it again and invite it into our new homes.
We know about the function and the importance of Yiddish: the recurrent need for the language as a means to a nobler end, as in the 19th century Enlightenment; the re-edification of the Jewish proletariat in Russia, and the unionizing in America of Jewish immigrant workers. But it is the present that interests me, and ought to interest anyone whom it touches in any way. My daughter asked me not long ago if I’d ever imagined that knowing Yiddish would become lucrative. It made me laugh because lucrative it isn’t. And yet, in this crossroads for Yiddish and incidentally also for myself, it has served me well. In fact, if I had ever thought I could actually find a use for my knowledge of Yiddish, I’d have worked at not forgetting it, worked hard at improving it and harder than I have as one of its promoters and disseminators. Who could have known in 1968, when I finished high school and the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in NYC and left it all behind me as I ventured into my adult life, that Yiddish would make the comeback it has in America – from cultural milieus such as Klezcamp, Yugntruf, Camp Kinder Ring and Yiddish Farm to academic studies such as in Columbia, Stanford, Indiana, Rutgers and Tel Aviv University; and online courses such as are offered at Learn Yiddish Live, The National Yiddish Book Center, The Workmen’s Circle and Hebrew University; to musical groups such as the Klezmatics, Abraham Inc., Klezmer Madness, Naftule’s Dream; theater like the National Yiddish Theater – Folksbeine in New York and Yiddishpiel in Israel; and the dozens of reading circles and small learning groups? And how could it ever be possible that in Israel, where the language war killed off Yiddish in favor of Hebrew, people would flock to Yiddish courses and study groups of every size and format, and where I personally have found work for six years now?
I am not really a trailblazer. There have always been people involved in keeping Yiddish alive, and they are all custodians of the heritage. When I started doing my part six years ago, the activity was already firmly established. In fact, had it not been, I would never have been asked by the kibbutz Culture Director to give my first class. So, I am a trailblazer only in the sense that I am forging a path ahead that, with luck or hard work, will grow broader and more inviting for more and more people.
I believe that today, from my vantage point of a lifetime of knowing, if not always speaking, the language, of a rediscovery of its literature and history and thus of the history of the people whose language it was and their antecedents, that Yiddish should be taught (in fact, can only be taught properly) as part of a comprehensive field including the language itself; its sources, history, and influences; the geographic and socio-political history of the Ashkenazi Jews; the Bible and other religious texts in the context of the history of the Jewish religion and the Ashkenazi Jews; and the literature. I could see what is now given in universities expand into a full-blown area of study. Certainly in Israel, where Yiddish ought to be fully embraced as a major portion of a major portion of the Jewish people. For its part, Yiddish and doikayt run intertwined. They are natural outgrowths of one another. In Israel, this could easily mean the infusion of “Israeli” and even Arabic into the local version of the language – creating yet another new dialect. Yiddish is like its speaker, the Wandering Jew who always puts down roots.
Yiddish for me is all this. But it is also, and perhaps primarily, where I come from. It is what I was born into, and what was part of me every day of my life my entire childhood till I left the hearth. It is mother and father and home. It is the warmth of my parents’ bodies, and love. It was my parents’ past, and their parents before them, and so on for over 1000 years. It is a language in which everything was thought and felt and expressed. And it is now the language of my adulthood. My return to it and filling the gaps in my own Yiddish education has been a supremely satisfying personal process in which I discover the language in all its richness and variety, its glory as well as its grief, its agility, its readiness to take on new challenges, and its great desire to live. I am pleased with my small role in the perpetuation of the language and its culture. I do it all with love – studying, teaching, translating, spreading the joy and the word – a continuation, a hemshekh, of the mission of rescue that began with my parents – their own rescue from the war and its aftermath, and their conscious, intentional rescue of our Yiddish heritage.
 Dovid Katz, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 9.
 This concept, also known as Diaspora Nationalism, as opposed to and in opposition to Zionism, maintained that the Jewish people could and should remain wherever they lived, concomitantly joining forces with the workers in the fight for equality, and preserving its national-cultural heritage.
 Riverside Drive between 83rd and 84th Street.
 The October Crisis began 5 October 1970 with the kidnapping of James CROSS, the British trade commissioner in Montréal, by members of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ).
 See Ghil’ad Zuckermann, “Complement Clause Types in Israeli,” in Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, eds. R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 72–92.
 Mendele Moykher-Sforim, actually the name of the character/narrator in most of the literary works of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, born in the Kapulye (Kopy), Belorus 1835–1917, wanted to help enlighten the younger generation and open them to economic independence and moral discipline within contemporary society. He began writing for this generation in Yiddish, spoken and understood by almost all the Jews in Eastern Europe but regarded by the maskilim as a language with no normative grammar, aesthetic value or cultural status. By doing so, Abramovitsh almost single-handedly transformed the perception of Yiddish from a mere jargon into a national language.
 Yiddish dialects are designated as Western and Eastern, where Eastern is further divided into Mideastern, Northeastern and Southeastern, roughly equivalent to Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian.
 For more on orthography as a political weapon, see Dara Horn, “Jewish Identity, Spelled in Yiddish,” The New York Times, June 4, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/opinion/jewish-identity-spelled-in-yiddish.html (accessed June 5, 2013).
 Completed in 1937
 For more on nationality and language, see John Myhill, Language, Religion and National Identity in Europe and the Middle East (John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2006).
 Horn, “Jewish Identity, Spelled in Yiddish.”
 In fact, Hebrew is the one component that is common to all Jewish languages, whether Ladino, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Aramaic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Persian or any other.
 Peretz became a proponent of Yiddish as the national language, as he proclaimed at the Czernowitz Conference in 1908.
 Verterbukh fun loshn–koydesh-shtamike verter (Paris: Medem Bibliotek, 1997).
 See, for example, Salikoko Mufwene, The Ecology of Language Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Michael Walsh, “Stop, Revive, Survive: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures,“ Australian Journal of Linguistics 31, no. 1 (2011): 111–127.
 Young, “Down with the ‘Revival’.”
 Camp Hemshekh closed in 1979, in part due to poor management. It is also true, however, that of all the Jewish camps that once dotted the North American map, only the Workmen’s Circle’s Camp Kinder Ring has remained. According to Ruth Baran, musical director of the camp, this might be because Kinder Ring offers “a distinct American culture with a taste of Yiddishkayt. Many of the present day campers are 2nd and 3rd and even 4th generation Kinder Ringers. Ninety-nine percent of them are eventually bar/bat mitzvahed and belong to Reform synagogues. They have parents who still have the money to pay for 7 weeks of camp. About 50 out of the 285 campers or so are admitted on scholarships. The kids that go to Kinder Ring come from families that once went to Jewish summer camps but that don’t want to send their kids to camps where they engage in prayers and observe Shabbat and are kosher. Kinder Ring has just the right amount of “Yiddishkayt” (including a Yiddish version of Kabbalat Shabbat) for these families. In fact, when the camp once scheduled double the amount of Yiddish culture, the parents actually complained. (Ruth Baran, online message to author, April 14, 2013).
Harshav, Benjamin. The Meaning of Yiddish. Stanford University Press, 1999.
Katz, Dovid. Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Krutikov, Mikhail. “Reading Yiddish in a Post-Modern Age: Some Trends in Literary Scholarship of the 1990s.” Shofar 20, no. 3 (2002): 1-13.
Margolis, Rebecca. Jewish Roots, American Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal 1905-1945. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.
Miron, Dan. A Traveler Disguised. Syracuse University Press, 1973.
Mufwene, Salikoko. The Ecology of Language Evolution. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Myhill, John. Language, Religion and National Identity in Europe and the Middle East. John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2006.
Rosenfarb, Chava. “My Life as A Yiddish Writer.” Sound recording. October 25, 2004. From Yiddish Book Center, Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library. MP3. http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/archival-recordings/fbr-1827_5822/fbr-1827_5822 (accessed October 17, 2013).
Roskies, David, ed. S Ansky: The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Yale University Press, 2002.
“Yiddish is ‘vibrant’ Among Argentina’s 450, 000 Jews, Noted Author Reports,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (February 5, 1963), http://www.jta.org/1963/02/05/archive/yiddish-is-vibrant-among-argentinas-450-000-jews-noted-author-reports (accessed August 12, 2013).
“Yiddish Schools in Melbourne, “Monash University: Education. http://future.arts.monash.edu/yiddish-melbourne/education-yiddish-schools-in-melbourne/ (accessed August 18, 2013).
Young, Jennifer. “Down with the ‘Revival’: Yiddish Is A Living Language,” YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (September 12, 2014), https://yivo.org/down-with-the-revival-yiddish-is-a-living-language (accessed September 15, 2016).
Zuckermann, Ghil’ad. “Complement Clause Types in Israeli.” In Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, 72–92. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Zuckermann, Ghil’ad and Michael Walsh. “Stop, Revive, Survive: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures.“ Australian Journal of Linguistics 31, no. 1 (2011): 111–127.
Zumoff, Barnett. “The Secular Yiddish School and Summer Camp: A Hundred-Year History,” Jewish Currents (August 10, 2013), http://jewishcurrents.org/the-secular-yiddish-school-and-summer-camp-a-hundred-year-history-19879 (accessed August 9, 2013).